Review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

It almost goes without saying that, when I'm on holiday in England, I pick up a bunch of books to bring back and read. All right, all right, I not only pick them up, but also pay for them.

Book cover for Bad Science This last visit, I was in Waterstones in Windsor, and to flesh out a three for the price of two deal, I bought Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. The blurb on the cover looked persuasive — "A fine lesson in how to skewer the enemies of reason and the peddlers of cant and half-truth" said The Economist — despite the fact I didn't know who Ben Goldacre was, so I took it to the checkout.

What an excellent book. Ben Goldacre is actually Dr Goldacre, a medical doctor who works full-time for the NHS (National Health Service) and who writes an extremely pithy column for The Guardian. Since I can't get the Guardian here in Colorado Springs, no wonder I'd not heard of him. But now I do, I'm firmly subscribed to his blog (also called Bad Science) — the man speaks a great deal of truth and rants beautifully into the bargain. As the blurb stated, his targets are those people who scam you with bogus medical treatments or advice.

The book shines, not because of the ranting (although that is very entertaining), but because Goldacre lays down the groundwork for us to evaluate what the media (newspapers, the TV and radio, blogs, etc) tries to tell us about medical matters. He shows us how to read these articles and to spot the elisions and lies, the stretching of the truth, what "truth" actually means in medical research, and so on. He explains what the placebo effect is and how it affects medical ethics. He explains how journalists cherry pick results from medical papers (or even just the papers themselves) to make a good story. He skewers the whole industry of nutrition and the self-appointed peddlers of nonsense that maintain it. (In the UK, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, it's not a protected word or profession -- see this hilarious routine by Dara O'Briain).

The whole book is extremely refreshing to read. Goldacre's anger is precise and surgical and incredibly funny. Take for example, his introduction to Dr Gillian McKeith PhD (someone else I'd not heard of, no longer living in England): "multi-millionaire pill entrepreneur and clinical nutritionist Gillian McKeith (or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith)." It was a good job that I wasn't drinking coffee at that point, for, as Goldacre shows later, she's not a real doctor. (Her "doctorate" is from the non-accredited Clayton College of Natural Health, a correspondence course college in the US, where a PhD costs $6,400.) Not content to just ridicule what she says or writes ("you should eat more green leaves because they're high in oxygen" is a good one) but goes on to further ridicule her "professional membership" of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants by purchasing one for his dead cat, Hettie.

But it's not just quacks that get the Goldacre righteous ire: he also has a good go at Big Pharma (to use the man-in-the-street way of referring to large pharmaceutical companies). He covers the Vioxx scandal where Merck researchers deliberately hid or downplayed the heart attack side effects of the painkiller. He points out that pharmaceutical companies are also owners of the companies that sell you vitamins and alternative medical products. (He even takes on whether taking antioxidants is valuable or not, health-wise — the answer being, duh, no.)

Finally he reserves most of his rage for the journalists who don't know enough about the science or how to interpret it and the newspaper editors who don't care about it by analyzing the whole MMR hoax (that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is bad for children and somehow has connections with autism). This story angers me greatly to begin with given that parents are not only playing with their children's lives but also those of other children, but Goldacre lays down the history behind it, the facts, and the outright lies. It's a riveting read and shows how the media, in not understanding or wanting to understand the issues or the science, created a world where children are in great danger from diseases that had almost been eradicated.

I enjoyed reading this book hugely and I hope it gets released in the US soon.

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2 Responses

#1 Andrew Denton said...
22-Sep-09 2:12 AM

Thanks for the heads up on this, Julian. I love anything that sticks a pin in the balloon of bad science. I've always known Gillian McKeith was a charlatan of the highest order. She had this programme on TV called You Are What You Eat (when she was known as "Dr." Gillian McKeith). The premise was the good "doctor" visited an overweight, unhealthy person, examined their faeces (seriously!), bullied them into eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising and then took the credit for the dramatic improvement in their general well-being.

#2 John Topley said...
24-Sep-09 1:32 PM

I have browsed through that book in a bookstore and thought it looked like a good read, so good to hear that it actually is.

Gillian McKeith had a successful show called "You Are What You Eat" on Channel Four here in the UK. It's now something of a standing joke that she appears to have a fetish for examining her victim's stool samples!

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